The Big Dig (Out)

I’m enjoying re-reading Infinite Jest, and I’m ready for it to be over.

I knew it was a risk, re-reading a book that was the epitome of “the right book at the right time” for me, now seven years ago. A lot has changed in that time. I have changed in that time. I was worried it wouldn’t feel special the second time around, that the spell would be broken.

It still feels special. It also feels dangerous.

I’m in a much better spot mentally and spiritually than I was when I first read the book. I feel connected to other people. I have a job where my talents are utilized and valued. I have a creative outlet through poetry. I have someone to love and who loves me. I feel secure in my present and my future. My brain, in short, feels better.

But my brain feels heavy when I read Infinite Jest. I can sense all of the characters and conversations about loneliness, depression and anxiety trying to worm their way back into my head. I can hear them asking, “Are you sure you don’t still feel this way, underneath it all?” Like Hal and the others, I start to wonder if I’m a good person, and if I’m good enough.

Because I’m reading a fresh copy of the book, I can’t always see the dangerous sections coming – the sections where, in my original copy, I made deep underlines throughout paragraphs, sometimes drawing a giant bracket in the margin that extended down the entire page. The sections where I once wrote “yes!” and drew sad faces in the margins. My reading is always accompanied by a slight sense of dread, not knowing when one of those sections is going to come up. [Spoiler: I’ve read ahead, and there’s a particularly gutting one on 693-696].

This week, more than any so far,  I’m reminded more than ever about why I started my Erasing Infinite work. After I finished Infinite Jest the first time, I felt like I’d been trapped at the wrong end of a landslide, burdened down by the weight of what I’d read. As I’ve created poetry, page by page, I’ve been digging out, stone by stone. I’ve been lighter. Less burdened.

But here I am again, hiking a familiar trail, buried again under a fresh pile of rocks. In May, I will dig out again.

How’s your head?

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5 thoughts on “The Big Dig (Out)”

  1. I too am ready for it to be over. Maybe 75 pages a week is just too much, like eating calamari and creme brulee every day. I’m tired of deciphering sentences that go on for 16 lines. I’m tired of Marathe and Steeply and descriptions of shadows at dawn and dusk (I think Mary Karr was right: DFW should have dumped the Quebecois plot line) and the play by play of tennis matches and when I got to the letter from Helen Steeply to MK Bain and saw that footnote 269 was over 5 pages I was pissed. I read mostly at night, in bed, from a torn up book and not enough light or strong enough glasses and the damn footnotes are tinier print than the main text. I rebelled and refused to read them.

    I should have read this book 20 years ago (when I was 50) and my middle son was 17 and reading it (along with Hunter Thompson and Jack London and other ruffians). He went to see the bandannaed one at the Tattered Cover. His parkour escapades and addictive behavior increased. He struggles with alcoholism now and will have nothing to do with AA. He read everything DFW wrote and didn’t seem surprised when he killed himself.

    But I will finish this book. It’s not the right book for me at the right time. But I can appreciate it sometimes as a singularity in both the literary sense and the physics sense: “a point at which a function takes an infinite value, especially in space-time when matter is infinitely dense, as at the center of a black hole.

  2. Yes, special and dangerous. The first time, I felt like a champion for having read IJ, alone, nights after getting home from teaching writing and literature courses to community college kids. I read IJ to “relax,” and when I told DFW that at a book store reading, he was a bit aghast and said, “You’re a better man [I’m female] than I am.” I’ve read ahead and have finished the book, and feel taken out at the knees. Nothing in the experience this time around felt like relaxation or relief. The experience was painful, depressing, and eviscerating, but with just enough comic relief to keep me coming back. Since the first reading, I’ve gone through alcohol rehab (AA) and watched a couple of loved ones die. I’ve seen more than I want to of addiction, homelessness, despair, and cruelty, and the many times that IJ underlined those realities I was both grateful for the perspective and undone by the truth. This second read was much more difficult than mine of 1996, and I’m glad it’s over. I don’t see an occasion when I’d want to go for a third round in the ring.

  3. I’m quite the opposite. I first read IJ in 2002 – I had young kids, a job that took me from the U.S. to all over Europe, and my appetites were more or less in check. Having just finished read no. 2, my wife and I are essentially new empty-nesters, my career trajectory has exactly always been upward, and I drink more than I should. For that last reason alone, the addiction/recovery of IJ hit me much harder this time around. And I have to say that although I still love the book and enjoyed this read, there is something I find perversely lonely about the book, which runs in direct contradiction to DFW’s notion that fiction serves to make us feel LESS lonely. IJ is, at heart, both an odd and somehow satisfying experience, but then that is probably the result of any work that depicts an absurd take on reality and yet manages to run the gamut of emotion and exhaustive narrative.

  4. The Big Dig was a construction megaproject. Reading Infinite Jest is a megaproject too. They both were set in Boston, and they both require some digging out.

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